In a race to catch up with the modern world, the Department of Education has instituted a new guideline of sex education in British schools, with lessons on sexting, FGM, and mental health now on the curriculum. Almost 20 years after the government first acknowledged that current provisions were inadequate, this move is one I welcome strongly.
These long-awaited guidelines aim to give children a firm grounding in the features and values of healthy relationships from as young as four, with Year 7s beginning puberty better placed to understand sex, physical health, and mental illness.
Child and adolescent sexuality has long been misunderstood and any suggestion that children should learn about sexuality (by this I mean understanding the body, puberty, intimacy, and relationships) can be taken as an attack on their innocence. In countries like Sweden, though, where sex education has been mandatory since 1956, children are taught age-appropriate lessons throughout their schooling as an integral part of their education, without feeling shame for their natural curiosity about sex.
It only serves to highlight the woefully inconsistent nature of British sex education between schools and even individual teachers
They begin by learning the names for their body parts as well as the differences between male and female anatomy, and soon move on to issues of consent and personal boundaries, preparing them well for the difficulties of autonomy and approval in intimacy. This stands is in stark contrast to the UK system, which has been woefully behind the times for several decades. These errors and faults are not merely accidental. They have been informed and maintained by a culture of dulled Victorian morality that considers any topic beyond textbook biology ‘improper’ or ‘inappropriate’.
Of course, this is not to say that every British sex education class is worthless or damaging. From personal experience, I remember my Year 6 teacher running a class just for girls where we sat in a circle and were given a few pieces of chocolate each and some nail polish. We spoke about puberty and periods for that hour without the usual embarrassment that came with the territory. At the same time, though, my Year 10 sex education teacher gave me some very misleading information about abortion and gynaecological exams, which only serves to highlight the woefully inconsistent nature of British sex education between schools and even individual teachers.
The lack of uniform sex education is tangibly detrimental to society. It could be held partially responsible, for example, for the 219,000 new STI diagnoses for 15-24 year-olds in 2015 and the shockingly high UK birth rate among teenage girls (19.7 births per 1,000 girls) compared to other developed countries, with Sweden facing a figure of just 5.2 per 1,000 girls.
The 100,000 opponents to the reform who focus on protecting ‘childhood innocence’ are doing society a plain disservice
I welcome these new guidelines as a positive step towards a more equal society. When children do not understand their own bodies and the changes that accompany puberty, they become adults who struggle to navigate relationships and basic issues of consent and identity. What’s more, they can fail to understand why other people may not approach sex and relationships in the same way they do. The only reservation I have about these reforms is that they are only enforceable in schools maintained by their local authority. Since these only account for 45% of schools in the UK, I worry that children at public schools, academies, faith schools, and home schools will be left behind.
Yet I find it encouraging that matters like sexual assault and abuse, FGM, honour-based violence, sexting, and the interaction of physical and mental health will be addressed in at least some schools. The 100,000 opponents to the reform who focus on protecting ‘childhood innocence’ are doing society a plain disservice and ignoring those that will really suffer when parents don’t do enough. Here’s a hint: it certainly isn’t the parents.